Madison Korean restaurant packs a spicy punch

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By Bill Livick, Special to The Gazette
Wednesday, January 15, 2014

MADISON—The September opening of Sol's on the Square bumps the number of Korean restaurants around Madison to three and makes the city part of a national culinary trend.

Korean cuisine has arrived in the U.S. on a large scale, and it's not difficult to understand why—at least, not at this time of year. Most of what we tasted from Sol's menu was spicy and fiery hot, which is ideal during Wisconsin winters but hard to imagine in July or mid-August.

I'm a novice when it comes to Korean recipes, but a few things are readily apparent about the food: sharp flavors, terrific textures and, of course, that heat.

The dominant flavors we tasted from Sol's kitchen included chili peppers (both paste and flakes), sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic and ginger.

Korean cuisine also is known for pickling, fermenting and salting, and all of those elements were at play during our visit last Saturday.

The restaurant is clean and tidy, featuring a bar and a dining room with tables placed a bit too close together. Each table is set with a black linen tablecloth and napkins.

Cuisine from the Korean peninsula includes lots of seafood, but also pork, beef and some chicken. Koreans typically use rice—or sometimes noodles—as the main starch in meals, which usually include a soup or stew.

Another characteristic of Korean cooking is the large number of side dishes, or banchan, that are served in small bowls. We ordered an appetizer, but before it arrived our server brought out a plate with four separate banchan at no cost: pickled yellow radishes, marinated strips of fish, spicy kimchi (fermented vegetables) and tangy, pickled cucumbers. Our server was happy to refill the plate—again, at no cost—when we'd nearly cleared it.

Korean meals usually are served when the food is ready, not in separate courses. Unfortunately, our table for two was so small there was no room for more than a couple of serving bowls at a time.

Our first course, japchae ($8), consisted of sweet potato noodles stir-fried in soy sauce with red and green peppers, onions, garlic and chili pepper flakes. For this, we had to abandon the chopsticks and turn to a fork and spoon to get a handle on the ridiculously long, slippery noodles. (They were described as sweet potato noodles on the menu but looked like the wheat flour noodles served in other dishes.)

The japchae was aromatic and bold, but its dominant flavors were so similar to those in our main courses—and so spicy hot—that it was a little hard to discern the subtle differences of each.

One of the cuisine's best-known dishes is bibimbap ($11): a bowl of white rice with sautéed spinach, carrots, zucchini, bean sprouts, radishes and beef with an over-easy egg dropped on top. The menu says diners can choose spicy red chili pepper sauce or sweet soy sauce with the order, although I don't recall our server presenting an option. Instead, we got the red pepper sauce, which also plays a role in the budae jjigae ($12)—also known as Korean Army Base stew.

Budae jjigae originated during the Korean War, when Koreans had very little to eat. People made the dish by combining leftover Spam and hot dogs from U.S. Army facilities with whatever else was available. All of the leftovers were mixed with water and boiled in a large pot. The stew is still popular, but with more varied ingredients than the original.

Budae jjigae is served in a large, hot bowl with a side of white rice. It includes spicy noodles with sausage, kimchi, green onions, mushrooms, tofu, beef or pork, Spam and hot dogs. The stew is spiced with red pepper powder and red pepper paste, soy sauce and garlic. Anchovies often are used to flavor the broth.

Our order was served in a quantity large enough for three diners.

The kitchen had just one order of dessert remaining when we asked: walnut cake, which came as six small balls of tender dough with a delicious center of walnut paste ($5). It was a total surprise because it was such a stark contrast to all the Korean food we'd just tasted.

Our servers were friendly, efficient and helped give us an overall positive experience.

Those with adventurous palates ought to check out Sol's. It offers a taste of authentic Korean food prepared by a chef with 16 years of experience in Seoul kitchens.

Last updated: 7:23 am Wednesday, January 22, 2014

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